Friday, September 27, 2002

On the Written, or Scribbled, Word

Will the near-ubiquitous computer keyboard eventually produce a generation who only know how to type but cannot write with a pen or pencil? The problem doesn't seem to have developed as of yet. Indeed, the current issue on computers and handwriting would appear to lie in the opposite direction--how to teach computers to successfully recognize handwriting. In their efforts to produce smaller and lighter computing devices, computer makers some years back developed small touch-sensitive screens where users drew letters or wrote longhand instead of typing on tiny keyboards. Interpreting these scrawls has proved annoying elusive, but several companies continue to try. The issue brings to mind questions on several levels--how far do you adapt to the individual versus requiring the adoption of a "standard" set of squiggles, as in the Graffiti language used on most PDAs, and would we get more mileage out of simply storing images of handwritten notes instead of expending processor time converting them to computer readable text? On a completely different level, might this result in a loss of diversity in handwriting styles over time? Do we mind that?
Read the NY Times article.

What's in a Word

Congress found itself evaluating the difference between "and" and "to" this week, in debates on a proposed resolution to declare support for the President Bush's campaign to declare war on Iraq. When it comes to putting their names on a resolution that will undoubtedly not receive universal agreement around the world, the representatives in Congress found themselves exquisitely sensitive to nuances in meaning. "You try to get to an understanding not only in terms of what is written, but how can it be interpreted," claims Representative Dick Armey, the House majority leader. Who better to appreciate the fine distinctions between definitions than people whose entire careers rest on how the public interprets their statements and promises? The question for me becomes not "which word did they finally settle on" but rather "how do I evaluate their motives for picking one word over another?"
Read the NY Times article.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Language in the, Like, News

Linguists rarely make the news, so each occasion warrants notice, even if it falls into the category of "Offbeat News". Muffy Siegel, a linguist at Temple University, made a bit of a splash in the popular press when she published her research on the use of the word "like" amongst young speakers of English in America. Contrary to the prevailing opinion amongst linguists that "like" acts merely as a filler in conversation, like "um," Siegel discovered that it plays several roles, and can substantially change the meaning in sentences. Read about her unusual research methodologyand her scholarly report in article on Temple University's web site.


I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.
-Jorge Luis Borges, writer (1899-1986)